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What is a medical credit card—and should I use one?

Those pretty brochures you see at your dentist's reception desk? There's a catch to the medical credit cards they say you may qualify for. CNBC Select offers input on whether or not you should apply.

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In an age of coronavirus chaos and flu season, your trips to the doctor this time of year may be more frequent than usual. Or maybe you have an upcoming dental or vision procedure that you know will be costly. Whatever the case, expensive medical treatments can easily add up.

Depending on your insurance and what deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs you may be responsible for, it's possible your doctor recommends a medical credit card, such as the CareCredit® credit card or the Wells Fargo Health Advantage, to cover the hefty bill.

But while these healthcare credit cards appear to offer special financing, they aren't the best way to fund your well-being.

"A medical credit card is really nothing more than a credit card marketed toward medical providers and consumers with a medical use in mind," financial educator Thomas Nitzsche, of Money Management International, Inc (a 501(c)(3) nonprofit member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling), tells CNBC Select.

Just like other types of credit, medical credit cards typically come with a promotional introductory interest rate period for the first six to 18 months. And like other types of credit cards, the interest rate typically shoots up into the 20% to 29% APR range once the promotion expires.

Should I use a medical credit card?

Unless you have first exhausted other options of paying your medical bill, such as applying for financial aid, and you have a realistic plan to pay off the debt within the medical credit card's promotional 0% APR period, there are usually better ways to resolve what is owed. In fact, by using a medical credit card to pay for your bill, you may actually forfeit other repayment options. 

And if you're adamant about using a credit card, you may as well use a generic one.

"Using an existing general-use credit card's balance transfer promotional rate is essentially identical to using a medical credit card, but doesn't require a credit inquiry and opening a new line of credit — both factors that can ding your score," Nitzsche says.

Use this credit card instead

A low-interest credit card you may want to consider is the no-annual-fee Platinum Mastercard® from First Tech® Federal Credit Union, which provides cardholders with a 0% APR on balance transfers for the first 12 billing cycles with no balance transfer fee. After the intro period, there's a competitive 8.49% to 18.00% variable APR. 

If you prefer a credit card that comes with rewards, the Titanium Rewards Visa® Signature Card from Andrews Federal Credit Union has special intro financing and a strong rewards program — all at no annual fee. The card has a low 9.49% to 16.49% variable APR. Balance transfers do incur a 1.50% fee per transfer, with a $50 minimum. Cardmembers can earn 3X points on gas and grocery purchases and 1.5X points on all other purchases.

Information about the CareCredit® credit card, AccessOne MedCard, Wells Fargo Health Advantage card, Titanium Rewards Visa® Signature Card from Andrews Federal Credit Union, and Platinum Mastercard® from First Tech® Federal Credit Union  has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.